REF noose round neck of academic freedom

September 12, 2013

Over the summer, my department asked me to prepare a research excellence framework impact statement based on work I had done six years ago (“Swansea’s REF plan diet hard to swallow”, News, 5 September). This came out of a collaboration with a young statistician from abroad who visited my research group for a year to learn about dynamic modelling. Our joint paper was a success and caught the attention of his government’s health division. He was therefore keen to push the work forward, so I helped but took a back seat.

As a senior researcher, part of my job is to train young faculty to develop into independent researchers. Well, this is what I thought, anyway, but six years later I realise my mistake. What I should have done was take ownership of the work, make sure my name was on everything and record, in minute detail, all evidence of impact. Based on these criteria, I did not do my job properly. I suppose that any day now my university could fire me, as can any university fire any academic who cannot put together a convincing impact statement.

Now, some readers might say it is illegal to instigate a policy of retrospective assessment of employees based on new criteria arbitrarily imposed by some suit. But if this were the case, then surely by now our universities would have sued the REF out of existence? By accepting this principle and thus setting a very dangerous precedent, we have, in effect, tightly applied the noose around the neck of academic freedom. All that is required of us now is a gentle nudge to send it to oblivion. Based on the track record of our generation of academics, we will be only too eager to oblige.

Philip Maini
Mathematical Institute
University of Oxford

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